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Scandium and the Formula 1 – Of Speed, Lightweight and Supply Challenges

Formula 1 racing isn’t for everyone, but those who love it will say it’s the pinnacle of engineering and speed.   And of course, it’s true — while Formula 1 race cars in 1977 achieved a top speed of 195 mph, today’s top speeds range north of 230 mph, with much of the speed gain being attributable to engineering breakthroughs. However, the often overlooked contributing factor is the materials science revolution — and a recent development here may be about to make the sport even faster:

Earlier last month, the governing body of the Formula 1, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), added the high-strength aluminum alloy Scalmalloy® to its regulations as an officially approved Additive Manufacturing material for use in the championship.  For followers of ARPN, Scalmalloy may ring a bell — it is the intricate web of said material that makes up the Light Rider – a high-tech motorcycle and perhaps the lightest motorcycle in the world  — which we featured on our blog before.

As we previously pointed out:

Scalmalloy is an ‘aluminum alloy powder “with almost the specific strength of titanium” [used] to build incredible structures by fusing thin layers of the material together.’ One of its key components is Scandium – which explains the first syllable of its somewhat curious name, aluminum being the middle-portion, with the ‘M’ standing for magnesium.

It is new applications like these that are making Scandium an increasingly indispensable tech metal, particularly in the context of the lightweighting revolution – a development marked by the ‘growing imperative to lightweight transportation, buildings, and infrastructure systems.’ 

Scandium gives ‘superplasticity‘ to aluminum alloys, making them more resistant to strain and bending forces, increasing the alloy’s welding capability, and allowing for the usage of replacing heavier metals with lighter-weight materials like aluminum.  Aircraft manufacturers have long been interested in scandium and scandium-alloyed aluminum materials because use of aluminium-scandium alloys has helped reduce aircraft weights by 15% to 20%, without compromising the strength of the building material.

Lightweighting is also increasing in importance in the context of the green energy transition. Writes Matthew Bohlsen for InvestorIntel:

“With the electric vehicle boom set to take off this decade, expect a surge in demand for the ‘lightweighting’ of key materials. An essential part of reducing the weight of electric vehicles (EVs) is scandium, which mixed with aluminum creates lighter and stronger alloys for EVs. Lighter weight means extending battery range in EVs and improving fuel efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases in combustion engines.”

Bohlsen sees the demand for scandium surge exponentially, arguing that “the current scandium market size is estimated to be about 35 tonnes per year, however Bloomberg forecasts this could grow to reach 1,800 tonnes pa by 2035 – a 51 times increase in demand. However, if the sales of electric vehicles surge as some forecast and reach 30 million by 2030, the demand for scandium would jump to a staggering 5,250 tonnes pa – a 150-fold increase on today’s demand based on  just a 0.2% scandium oxide-aluminum alloy in each EV.”  And these numbers exclude additional consumption by other industries.

The supply side is challenging, however.  As we previously pointed out, 

[W]hile on paper, Scandium resources may in fact be abundant, it is rarely concentrated in nature, making commercially viable deposits extremely rare. Because it is at present largely recovered as a co-product during the processing of various Gateway Metals, including Tin and Nickel, total global production rates are quite low.  Scandium may also be present in certain Copper and Rare Earth deposits. 

To date, the U.S. has been 100% import-dependent to meet our domestic Scandium needs and has had to rely on China and Russia — arguably not our most reliable trading partners — to meet demand. In recent years, with demand forecasts for Scandium on the upswing,  mining companies have begun exploring the possibility of primary Scandium recovery and researchers — on behalf of developers of multi-metallic deposits began studying the inclusion of scandium recovery into their project plans.

Bohlsen points to Imperial Mining Group Ltd.’s Crater Lake property in northeastern Quebec, Canada, as an example.  And, as Reuters reported earlier in May of this year, researchers at Rio Tinto have developed a way to extract scandium from waste tailings in the titanium dioxide production process in one of its production facilities in Quebec, Canada. 

These developments are welcome particularly at a time when the pitfalls of the United States’ overreliance on foreign mineral resources has come to the forefront and stakeholders are working to strengthen domestic mineral resource development and leverage partnerships with reliable trading partners, such as in the context of the National Technology Industrial Base (NTIB) — a forum comprised of United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom “created by U.S. law that treats the technological and industrial might of all four allies as a single entity for national security purposes.”

In the meantime, we’ll keep an eye out for Scalmalloy on the race track.  Additive manufacturing publication 3D Print speculates that the Mercedes F1 racing might be “a logical choice for adopting the metal in refining their world-class and potentially unbeatable car.”   We have long talked about materials science changing our world at neck-breaking speeds. We may soon see a quite literal manifestation of this concept.